Is Earth Exceptional?

The Quest for Cosmic Life

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By Dr. Mario Livio, Ph.D.

By Dr. Jack Szostak, Ph.D.

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A New York Times–bestselling astrophysicist and a Nobel laureate describe the quest to discover how and where the universe breathed life into matter 

For a long time, scientists have wondered how life has emerged from inanimate chemistry, and whether Earth is the only place where it exists. Charles Darwin speculated about life on Earth beginning in a warm little pond. Some of his contemporaries believed that life existed on Mars. It once seemed inevitable that the truth would be known by now. 
It is not. For more than a century, the origins and extent of life have remained shrouded in mystery. But, as Mario Livio and Jack Szostak reveal in Is Earth Exceptional?, the veil is finally lifting. The authors describe how life’s building blocks—from RNA to amino acids and cells—could have emerged from the chaos of Earth’s early existence. They then apply the knowledge gathered from cutting-edge research across the sciences to the search for life in the cosmos: both life as we know it and life as we don’t. 
Why and where life exists are two of the biggest unsolved problems in science. Is Earth Exceptional? is the ultimate exploration of the question of whether life is a freak accident or a chemical imperative. 
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  • "Livio and Szostak adeptly describe how astrophysics, geology and chemistry may have collided on the primordial Earth to spark life. Provocative and thoughtful, they tackle the age-old question, ‘Is there life in the Universe beyond Earth?’ You’ll need to read the book to find the answer.”
    Thomas R. Cech, Nobel Laureate and author of The Catalyst
  • "Is Earth Exceptional? connects current research about two questions, 'Is life out there?' and 'How did life start here?' to where they meet in the middle in a way that is exciting and accessible. This is the biggest human quest, to understand our place in the Universe. I highly recommend this is exceptional."
    Adam Riess, Nobel Laureate and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins
  • "Is Earth Exceptional? is a mesmerizing exploration of life’s origins and its potential beyond our planet. With profound insights from astrophysicist Mario Livio and my PhD advisor and Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak, this is a must-read for anyone curious about the universe and our place within it."
    Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Laureate and co-author of A Crack in Creation
  • “This book offers the clearest account I have read anywhere on our current understanding of how life could have begun from simpler chemicals, and also explores the prospects for extra-terrestrial life. These are two of the biggest unsolved mysteries in science and the book makes for fascinating reading.”
    Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate and former President of the Royal Society
  • "How did life begin? Are we alone in the cosmos? These are  eternally-fascinating mysteries. But what's so exciting  today is that novel insights and improved  instruments are generating real scientific progress towards solving them. General readers should be grateful to the two authors of this book–distinguished in astronomy and in biochemistry—for expounding  current debates and future prospects with authority and clarity. Their timely book shows how science fiction is turning into real science: it deserves wide readership."
    Martin Rees, UK Astronomer Royal, bestselling author of If Science is to Save Us
  • “At long last, a popular science book on the origins of life that delves deep into the underlying science - take the dive and be richly rewarded!”
    John D. Sutherland, FRS, Darwin Medalist, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge UK
  • "A masterful and insightful traverse from historical milestones to the forefront of modern science, Is Earth Exceptional? offers an indispensable guide for anyone seeking to understand the puzzles and mysteries surrounding the beginnings of life and its potential beyond Earth."
    Sara Seager, Professor of Physics, Planetary Science, Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT
  • “Mario Livio and Jack Szostak have written a comprehensive and compelling review of the evidence of how the origin of life might have happened and the chances of finding life elsewhere in the universe. It’s a great combination of the chemistry and biology of life’s origins by one of the top researchers in the field and a best-selling astrophysicist who guide us through the exciting breakthroughs in exobiology and the potential for extraterrestrial life. A fascinating read to a general reader looking for answers to the question “are we alone in the universe?”. Enjoyable, and highly informative.”
    J. Craig Venter, Leader of the teams that sequenced the first human genome and built the first synthetic cell
  • "A mind-blowing ramble through the RNA world and beyond, that confronts the ultimate challenge for the origins of life: are we alone in the Universe?"
    Joseph Silk, author of Back to the Moon: The Next Giant Leap for Humankind
  • "This is an exceptional book on an exceptional question. With astronomers finally poised to begin the search for alien life in earnest, Livio and Szostak offer a beautifully written and accessible tour of the essential questions surrounding that quest. From how life begins to which planets it might begin on, Is Earth Exceptional? delivers deep insights into the cutting edge science needed to answer those questions. This is a must read book for anyone interested in the ancient question of life and its cosmic fecundity."
    Adam Frank, Professor of Astrophysics and author of The Little Book of Aliens
  • "How could the geochemistry of young Earth lead to biochemistry? Is life a common occurrence in the cosmos? In this brilliant new book, Livio and Szostak bring us to the threshold of an imminent breakthrough. They are by far the best guides to take us on this quest. Eloquent, deep, and refreshingly up-to-date, the book is a fascinating journey through the breathtaking progress of the past decade. It is The Da Vinci Code of science books - a remarkable page-turner to the very end."
    Dimitar Sasselov, Phillips Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University; Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative

On Sale
Sep 10, 2024
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Dr. Mario Livio, Ph.D.

About the Author

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist who worked with the Hubble Space Telescope and a bestselling author of seven books, including The Golden Ratio and Brilliant Blunders. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

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Dr. Jack Szostak, Ph.D.

About the Author

Jack Szostak is a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, leading the Center for the Origin of Life. He shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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